Shane McGuigan says it's time to put smiles back on the faces of Derry Gaels
Odhrán Crumley talks to Shane McGuigan about Derry's development and their chances against Tyrone...
SUCCESS is something that has followed Shane McGuigan throughout his career. The boy wonder was among the forwards in the trophy-laden Slaughtneil fairy-tale, won titles with St Pat’s Maghera, the Derry underage set-up and an Allstar with St Mary’s.
One thing that eludes McGuigan, though, is a senior inter-county Championship win. Tyrone, Mayo, Kildare and Donegal have inflicted defeats in his four senior appearances, not a bad roll-call but, nonetheless, it’s a monkey the young attacker is keen to get off his back.
“I made my debut against Tyrone two years ago by coming on and we got beat before Mayo put us out that year," he says.
"Then, Donegal obviously accounted for us last year. A Championship win is something that I am really looking forward to and I don’t know if it will be Tyrone, but I hope it will be soon.”
Recent campaigns have not gone to plan for the Oak Leafs, McGuigan and the rest of the Slaughtneil cohort joining the set-up late due to their success in the club competitions has had a bearing on their poor Championship form and subsequent relegation to Division Four.
This season, Damian McErlain has had a full panel at his disposal from the get-go. The tour of Ireland that comes with life in the fourth tier may prove a blessing in disguise for the Derry men, with time on the road providing extra bonding and a winning mentality that is difficult to shake.
“Over the last couple of years, we have come in late to the set-up and we haven’t had the full whack at Derry," adds McGuigan of the Slaughtneil contingent.
"That wasn’t fair on the manager either, to not have his full team at his disposal, so it has worked well this year. We have gelled a lot better as a team. That is something the team has tried to work on this year, by having us mix together as a team.
“When you go down south, even if it is Division Four teams you are playing, they are still inter-county players. It is a hard trip and anyone that is going to Limerick for a game of football, it’s going to be a hard trip, you know what you are getting down there.
“Those are long bus journeys down and Damian McErlain did make sure he was mixing up hotel rooms to make sure people just didn’t stay with their friends, but we were mixing with different people from within the county and that definitely brought us closer together.”
The task at hand now goes up a few notches as they prepare to take on last year’s All-Ireland finalists in a Tyrone side that began to find their groove as they league ran on. In stark contrast to pairings between the old rivals down the years, the pressure is off the Oak Leaf county as the general perception is a Tyrone victory.
“You can say that, but on those Championship days you are under pressure," says McGuigan.
"Over the last couple of years Derry haven’t performed to the standard that they should be performing too. We have some top quality footballers in Derry, make no doubt about that, it’s just about getting everyone working together and Damian McErlain has brought in Ciarán Meenagh, which has been a huge help and you can feel that the team is really starting to gel.
“I know that is something that will be vastly different but, you go out onto the training field and you're marking Niall Keenan, Chrissy McKaigue, Brendan Rogers, Karl McKaigue and these are all players that, in my opinion, would step into any other county team in Ireland. Even a county like Tyrone would love to have them, so I am getting as good of a test out in the training field as I am going to face in Healy Park.”
One name the 21-year-old keeps returning to is Ciarán Meenagh, drafted into the management set-up by Damian McErlain and, if McGuigan is to be believed, he has made an impact of gargantuan proportions.
“He has brought a whole different aspect to training and Damian was more than happy get him on board, actually it was Damian’s idea," McGuigan says.
"He has brought a real structure to our play, he demands perfection and he is a real strict trainer and, if things are not being done right, he will tell you. In the previous years that I have been involved, Derry really haven’t found a balance to their play, it has been all-out attack. Ciarán Meenagh has brought a more defensive minded approach to our play. Maybe not in the league final but, previous to that, you could see his work being brought into action and we were keeping teams out and not conceding a lot.
“Like I said, Ciarán has come in and that has made a huge impact. We have all done our gym-work and we have all had our collective sessions in the gym, so we are all physically as well as mentally prepared."
The St Mary’s student is clearly relishing the task at hand and the white heat battle of the Championship will not be a new experience. For him, performance and restoring pride in the jersey among Derry people rises to the fore.
“You can’t overlook Tyrone, they were All-Ireland finalists last year and, even in the league campaign, they got off to a slow start but, over the last three or four games, you really seen what they are about," McGuigan says.
"They beat Dublin in Croke Park, they have adopted a new style of play, which you can really see in those games. We will look at them in the videos and the analysis we do. We have been trying to pinpoint certain aspects of their game that we can zone in on and hopefully that will all come to the fore on May 12.
“We know from our previous experiences, the people of Derry don’t deserve to see the standard slipping and maybe not this year. We do have to improve, it may not be this year but, over time in the next two or three years, we will be starting to put the smiles back on the people of Derry’s faces.”
For the first time in three seasons, Derry will not be entering into a Championship campaign off the back of a league relegation. Instead, they will enter unbeaten in eight games and with a national title, albeit Division Four, in the bank.
That winning mentality is hard to shift and the confidence it can install in a team is untold. This new younger breed of Derry footballer will harbour no battle scars of the white-and-red of Tyrone given their supremacy in the underage ranks.
The potency in attack has been a central feature throughout the campaign, with no shortage of scoring forwards. Christopher Bradley, Shane McGuigan, Ryan Bell, Enda Lynn, Emmett Bradley and Ciarán McFaul from midfield helped shoot their way to 6-107 in eight league outings.
However, this tally came against fourth-tier teams who installed the majority of their team behind the ball. Tyrone will attack Derry and this could see the Oak Leaf attacking arsenal with more space than they have been afforded throughout the league campaign.
This, coupled with having the full panel on board from the outset, could and should lead to a perfect storm for Damian McErlain's men.
Over the last number of seasons, the Derry defence has been one of the leakiest in the country and led to the Oak Leafs engaging in shoot-outs they should have been avoiding.
In the eight Division Four league games, their defence leaked 9-84 and only managed to not concede a major in one game, at home to Wicklow. Games against such opposition appeared comfortable until a soft goal was conceded, breathing life into their opponents' challenge.
Stats like this will worry the Derry faithful due to the fact their first round opponents are Tyrone and the potency of the Red Hand attack is sure to be in stark contrast to that faced by McErlain's side thus far this season.
Many believe that the best chance of success for the Derry men is in a low scoring contest as a shoot-out is likely to end with savage consequences. Defensive issues are not something new to the side, but the only glimmer of hope is that they have had six weeks since the league final to work on a new structure and get ready for the might of Tyrone.